IT IS a Wednesday morning in August, and the 21 members of the Sutton-on-Sea beach mission team have just finished Morning Madness. It’s not as warm as the previous day, the team leader, Liz Boland, observes, and there’s a threat of rain later; but there are still plenty of people enjoying the miles of golden sand that make this a popular summer resort.
I catch her on her mobile, in a brief break — “I can’t guarantee a small child won’t pop up somewhere,” she warns. The Scripture Union has been running beach missions here for 130 years, and Liz has been coming to Sutton for 20 years herself, ever since first helping as a student. Numbers are good, she comments: around 100 children and 60 adults have been enjoying the morning session, and more will be at today’s afternoon holiday clubs and Family Night. Today’s theme is communication with God, and the simple message about prayer, contained in all the fun and activity, will be expanded in the age-specific clubs.
They started on Sunday and are running for two weeks. They’re a big presence in the Lincolnshire town — some holidaymakers come because they’re here — and the ground has been well prepared in advance of their arrival. Local clergy have taken flyers into the primary schools; there have been newsletters; and all the children who came last year will have been contacted in a bid “not to be too much of a hit-and-run mission, but to keep it going. We send Christmas cards, for instance; we try to point them towards books to help them read the Bible.”
What makes this such a good concept, she reflects, is the simple action of meeting people where they are. “We’re on the beach. They’re on the beach. They come and see what we’re doing. To a certain extent in the afternoon, we ask people to come to us. But, in the mornings, we’re where people are, and people are attracted to us. We’re big and we’re loud and we’re bright, and you can’t miss us.
“Some come because they see us as offering free childcare, and we’re happy with that. Some people come along because there aren’t many free activities in the school holidays these days. But that’s fine, because they’re coming along and they’re hearing what we are saying. I think being where they are and not asking people for lots of money is a great combination.”
CHILDREN will be drawn to beach missions all over the country, from Southwold to Abersoch, Perranporth to Marske — as they will to the Scripture Union’s holiday camps and myriad sports events. The organisation is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding by Josiah Spiers in 1867, and its mode of working has from the start been as Mrs Boland describes it: meeting people where they are and never, never in a church building.
Spiers started with an assembly of 15 children in a house in Islington. On holiday in Llandudno the following year, he encountered some idle children on the beach and invited them to decorate the words he had drawn in the sand, “God is Love”. Then he told them a Bible story. They came back with others the following day, the crowds swelled daily, the local vicar was contacted, and a beach service at the end of the week attracted 500.
IT BEGAN as the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM). Spiers and Tom Bishop, a civil servant who was taking a similar approach to ministry among children, worked together for 40 years, introducing daily Bible readings, which evolved into children’s magazines; putting on the first Boys’ Camp in 1892, and starting the Caravan Mission to Village Children — the baker’s van it used displayed the texts “The Son of God Must Be Lifted Up”, and “Ye Must Be Born Again”.
By 1893, they had distributed 13 million children’s leaflets in 50 languages. The forerunner of Daily Notes, which came out in 1923, were those published for troops in the First World War. Work in state schools began after 1945, with the launch of the Inter School Christian Fellowship.
CSSM — affectionately remembered for a book of choruses still lurking on many a shelf — became the Scripture Union in the 1960s. In tough recessionary times in 2009, it underwent what the organisation itself termed “a radical re-shaping”, designed to minimise overheads and cut central costs. Head-office jobs were a casualty as greater flexibility was sought and funding was deployed to the regions for face-to-face work with children and young people. Future emphasis was placed on front-line mission through field work, publishing, and holiday and mission events. There was to be strong investment in digital ministries.
THE original vision remains unaltered: to see a new generation of children and young people come to a vibrant, personal faith in Jesus. The 150th anniversary has been the launchpad for the 95 campaign, initiated by the widely accepted statistic that only five per cent of children go to church — a figure described as “alarming” by the national director, Tim Hastie-Smith. The campaign, he says, is about “gathering, equipping and encouraging” those with a heart for the 95 per cent.
A former head teacher, and a team vicar in the South Cotswolds Team Ministry in Gloucestershire, he offers a vignette that, he suggests, will be familiar to many. A couple in their late seventies are regular churchgoers. Neither their children nor their grandchildren are involved in church. It is the two great-grandchildren who are now reconnecting via school and holiday clubs. Whether the general disconnection is due to loss of belief or simple lifestyle change, the Church, he says, “represents something that doesn’t touch their personal experience. It’s an alien concept.”
The end result of the 95 campaign may not be children in church, he acknowledges: the outcome of engaging children and young people with the gospel may be further down the line, and “seeing this as a simple recruitment drive for people under the age of 18 is the wrong starting-place. It’s about trying to open eyes to the presence and reality of God.”
A recent redesign of the website prompted the question from the designers, Mr Hastie-Smith says, “‘who do you want to reach, who do you want to speak to?’ Probably the key persona, we decided, was ‘Jaden’, a kid aged 11 or 12 from a non-churchgoing home, with no particular connection to the church, but who might know someone perhaps who did go to church. What language would we want to use to communicate with him? How would we explain to his mum, without using Christian jargon, what he was doing if he wanted to attend a Scripture Union activity?
“If we can’t justify what we’re doing, if we can’t explain that the proclamation of the gospel is something that we believe through history and experience to be positive and life-transforming, then we’ve got a major problem. Otherwise, you get to that stage where anyone who is trying to share the gospel has to pretend to something else. You almost get the kind of Christian-Trojan-horse-in-school scenario: we come in as Christians, but we don’t really say what we’re doing, because people might not like it. That’s completely unacceptable, absolutely wrong.”
THE organisation does not find its activities restricted in the 21st-century climate of safeguarding. Trust can never be taken for granted, Mr Hastie-Smith reflects; so it’s about allowing scrutiny every step of the way to ensure that there is no proselytising, no inappropriate methodology, and certainly no pressure.
He takes the example of the beach mission, where older brothers and sisters can sit on a wall and watch — “sort of involved but pretending not to be” — while another ring of adults is also watching what’s going on. The rule of thumb for teams in a school situation is: “If you’re happy to say what you’re going to say with the head teacher, staff, and parents standing at the back, that’s OK. If you’re not, don’t say it.” Viewed in the right way, safeguarding should be a positive part of gospel proclamation, he says.
The Scripture Union is by no means working in isolation, he readily acknowledges: other organisations and denominations are engaged in huge numbers with the work of reaching young people. “What we can do — because we have the privilege of this very narrow focus on people outside the Church — is ask some questions and provide some examples and opportunities.
“The reality is that the lessons we are learning are as appropriate to adults as they are to young people. That shouldn’t surprise us. Anyone can get involved in the 95 campaign. We are inviting anyone.”
SPIERS and Bishop would recognise some of the activities in 2017: the beach missions, of course; the concept of the holidays — though now it can include something as heady as motorsports — and, above all, the steady discipleship that encourages younger children to start exploring the Bible and older ones to go deeper. The organisation works in 150 countries of the world.
They would probably approve of the sports-ministry programmes, too, which include a partnership with Christians in Sport and the mobilisation of churches to run “Club House” training sessions in 25 cities. Elsewhere, adult volunteers are being trained to deliver a network of youth clubs in schools, colleges, community centres, and churches. One of the most exciting developments is the rooftop sports facilities, backed by the SU and built on top of flats on the deprived Pimlico estate.
WHAT would blow the minds of Spiers and Bishop, though, would be the virtual-reality game Guardians of Ancora, a step into the digital space that, Mr Hastie-Smith acknowledges, has been “experimental every step of the way”. Free to download and designed for players aged 8 to 11, its Bible Quest adventures include fun challenges such as collecting lost sheep. The game is immersive; so players take part themselves, as characters in the story.
One of the biggest decisions that had to be taken was whether to retain control of the game by leasing it to churches, perhaps, training people to use it in some way, or requiring a subscription. “We decided just to let it go and let it happen,” Mr Hastie-Smith said. “If it’s God’s word, it will have some kind of impact.”
What happens after that, what the next stage will be, involves “a degree of futurology”, he suggests, “and probably something we are not used to”. Churches and others signing up to the 95 campaign will be part of the answer, with money on offer from the Good News Fund for mission initiatives.
After all, Mr Hastie-Smith concludes, “It’s not as if we’re going into some terrifying alien territory in our anniversary year. God has already gone before us.”
BISHOP Paul Butler is the president of Scripture Union England and Wales, and chairs its advisory council. His involvement with the organisation began when, as an 18-year-old about to start university, he found himself helping at the SU’s Longbarn camp, in Kent.
He continued to be involved in Longbarn camps for the next 30 years, including setting up Longbarn East End, a week-long camp at the site which “was deliberately set up as a partnership between local churches in the East End and Scripture Union to provide a holiday in a Christian context for children who were unlikely to get holidays at that time.
“One of the things about camps and residentials is that you create a temporary community,” he explains. “It is the creation of this temporary community that leads to so many people finding faith and growing and maturing in that context. . .
”One of the great things for me about the camps is that they are great growers of teams and help people learn to work together. [And] Scripture Union events create memories for people — really good positive memories of childhood, and positive memories of Jesus, the Bible, and the Christian faith.”
Bishop Butler later worked for Scripture Union in the UK, during which time he made connections with SU movements, volunteers, and staff around the world. He describes the international organisation as “a fantastic family . . . with a real sense of core commitments to the Bible and to children and young people and their families. Two things drive us as an international movement: helping children and young people meet Jesus and grow as disciples through engagement with the Bible.
“Scripture Union is still growing around the world because it has clear direction. It is focusing on sharing the good news of Jesus with children and young people and families. It wants people to encounter God through the Bible. It’s always been willing to adapt to changing cultures and settings and it has never shied away from doing new things and taking risks.
“It is worked out differently in all the different countries, but we recognise each other because there is a commonality about the shared vision and the values across the organisation. The twin vision of reaching children and young people, and the Bible and the shared values, are why I think Scripture Union International works.”